EVERETT — The towering smokestacks of the state’s largest power plant have loomed for decades over the Boston area, spewing pollutants that produce smog, warm the planet, and exacerbate asthma and other respiratory illnesses, such as the coronavirus.
One of the region’s few remaining fossil fuel plants to continue operating in such a densely populated place, the Mystic Generating Station was slated to be closed two years ago, when Exelon Corp., its Chicago-based owner, said it was no longer profitable.
But then the operator of the regional power grid threw the Mystic plant a lifeline. Executives of ISO New England worried they needed the plant in order to keep the area’s lights on. So they awarded the company a contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars — subsidized by New England ratepayers — to continue operating Mystic through 2024.
Now, with the plant’s oil and gas turbines belching millions of tons of noxious pollutants every year, Exelon is seeking to continue operating the 2,000-megawatt plant beyond the next four years. The move has sparked outrage throughout the surrounding communities, where a disproportionate number of residents have long suffered elevated levels of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.
Among them is Sean Collie, who has lived a few blocks from the Mystic plant for 23 years. The 45-year-old construction worker suffers from asthma, as does his 12-year-old daughter.
Collie, whose wife gave birth last year to another daughter, worries for his growing family. The air in the neighborhood can be so difficult to breathe that they sometimes have to shut all their windows. The foul-smelling fumes often leave him wheezing, and prone to long spells of coughing, he said.
“We want to see the plant gone — the sooner, the better,” he said, noting there are many other sources of unhealthy air nearby, including Logan International Airport, major highways, and tankers transiting the Mystic River. “The air here can be gross. You can taste it. It’s not healthy.”
Mystic is among the last of what were known as the “Sooty Six” — the state’s most polluting power plants. While state and federal requirements have required Exelon to reduce the amount of soot emitted, the plant still remains one of the state’s largest sources of pollution.
Company officials insist their plant remains vital to the metropolitan area, and that there are good reasons to keep it running.
The plant’s turbines “meet Massachusetts’ environmental and emissions standards, which are among the strictest in the country,” said Mark Rodgers, a spokesman for Exelon, which received a $400 million contract to continue operating the plant from 2022 to 2024.
“Mystic generates reliable, low-carbon power for more than a million homes and businesses in Boston and beyond, and until a transmission solution is in place, keeping Mystic online is the safest and cleanest way to meet regional energy demand and prevent the risk of rolling blackouts,” he said.
Last week, in an effort to extend its operating contract, the company filed a 53-page complaint with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, accusing ISO New England of violating its policies by insufficiently reviewing the region’s energy and transmission needs. Exelon also accused the grid operator of curtailing a competitive bidding process to replace Mystic’s power.
The company filed the complaint two days after ISO New England announced it would reject all but one of 36 proposals to replace Mystic, and that it planned to select a $49 million project by National Grid and Eversource to upgrade substations and build new transmission lines.
Exelon alleged that the grid operator was risking power failures in Boston “by prematurely substituting the uncertain outcome” of the proposed replacements “for the certainty provided by Mystic.”
But officials at ISO New England have defended their decisions and call Exelon’s initial commitment to close in 2024 “irrevocable.”
“Exelon has requested to retire the Mystic plant, and that request cannot be withdrawn,” said Matt Kakley, a spokesman for the grid operator. “The ISO is working to ensure that the regional power system remains reliable following this retirement.”
The company’s effort to keep Mystic running has raised concerns among environmental advocates, who fear the additional emissions would exacerbate public health issues, especially in an area already hit hard by the coronavirus.
In just the past two years, Mystic released more than 3.1 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air over Everett — 21 percent of the primary emissions responsible for global warming from all the state’s power plants, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
In the same time, Mystic emitted more than half of all the sulfur dioxide and nearly one-fifth of all the nitrogen oxide released by the state’s power plants, EPA records show. Both gases have small particles that can be inhaled, leading to breathing problems and respiratory illnesses.
The surrounding cities, including Boston, Chelsea, and Revere, already had among the state’s highest asthma rates, while a recent study by researchers at Harvard University found that long-term exposure to air pollution increases the risk of dying from the coronavirus. The study found that a person who has lived for decades in a neighborhood with elevated levels of soot is 8 percent more likely to die of the virus than someone who has lived in a neighborhood with just one unit less of the pollution.
Indeed, the surrounding counties of Middlesex, Suffolk, and Essex lead the state in the number of coronavirus deaths, while infections around the plant have been among the highest in the state, with Chelsea leading Massachusetts with more than 7,500 infections per 100,000 people — five times the state average. Everett and Revere also have among the state’s highest infection rates.
“It’s true that the Mystic plant is cleaner than it used to be, but burning fossil fuels there compounds so many other problems,” said John Walkey, waterfront coordinator of GreenRoots, an environmental group in Chelsea. “The continued operation of that plant will continue the ongoing legacy of environmental insults to our community, and to people’s health. It should have already been shut down.”
Others worry that prolonged operation of the plant could delay or kill proposals to replace its power with renewable energy.
Exelon’s recent complaint and other efforts, they worry, could also delay the selection of a replacement, leaving ISO New England with no choice but to keep Mystic going.
“The Exelon filing is concerning to the extent that it seeks to further delay the retirement of a climate killer,” said Phelps Turner, a senior attorney at the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation.
He also scoffed at the company’s assertions that its gas turbines are among the state’s safest and cleanest.
Those claims “disguise the plain and undeniable fact that these are old, inefficient, and polluting fossil-fuel-fired units that harm the health of nearby residents and damage the climate,” Turner said.
Exelon’s recent tactics have also raised the concerns of Attorney General Maura Healey, who filed a petition this month with state energy officials, urging them to reduce the state’s dependence on fossil fuels and arguing the state has sufficient power to keep the lights on.
Healey noted that Mystic has a history of violating limits on emissions of particulate matter, requiring the company to pay millions of dollars in penalties, she noted.
“We need to focus on moving away from highly polluting fossil-fuel power plants like Mystic that have a disparate impact on vulnerable communities," she said, noting that keeping it open would saddle Massachusetts ratepayers with hundreds of millions of dollars in extra costs.
Among those hoping that Exelon closes the plant on schedule is Sandra Padilla, who also lives a few blocks from the plant. On a recent afternoon, with her daughters, ages 2 and 5, playing on her porch, the 35-year-old pregnant mother said she worries about the air.
With the smokestacks looming in the distance on a muggy afternoon, Padilla said the air was typically the most fetid in the summer, when the plant often runs at full capacity on the hottest days.
“I hope they know young children live here," she said.
Correction: The story initially cited an incorrect amount of carbon dioxide the Mystic Generating Station released over the past two years. The plant released 3.1 million tons of the greenhouse gas into the atmosphere in 2018 and 2019, or 21 percent of all carbon dioxide released by power plants in Massachusetts.